Motivated Reasoning, Public Opinion, and Presidential Approval

Abstract

Presidential approval is a desirable commodity for US presidents, one that bolsters re-election chances and the prospects of legislative success. An important question, then, is what shapes citizens’ approval of the executive. A large body of literature demonstrates that the president’s handling of issues, particularly the economy, is an important component. A similarly large literature confirms that evaluations of the president, like most political objects, are filtered through partisan lenses. Due to changes in the US political environment in the last few decades, we suspect that the relative importance of these components has changed over time. In particular, we argue that polarization has increased partisan motivated reasoning when it comes to evaluations of the president. We support this empirically by disaggregating approval ratings from Reagan to Obama into in- and out-partisans, finding that approval is increasingly detached from economic assessments. This is true for members opposite the president’s party earlier than it is for in-partisans. While the president has been over-attributed credit and blame for economic conditions, the increasing impact of partisanship on approval at the expense of economic sentiment has generally negative implications when it comes to electoral outcomes and democratic accountability.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    This would not hold if biases are non-constant over time; for example, if the composition of the parties—and therefore the net effect of partisan biases—has changed over time. Certainly there is evidence of shifting demographics among those who identify as Republican or Democrat (Pew Research Center 2018). But we are unaware of any evidence suggesting that levels of political sophistication or partisan ambivalence among Democrats or Republicans has changed over time. Nonetheless, we return to this point in the discussion, particularly with respect to the increasing number of Independents.

  2. 2.

    The results are substantively unchanged when the full index is used rather than the single component we employ here.

  3. 3.

    Unfortunately, the Michigan Survey of Consumers does not collect data on partisanship. This leaves us unable to disaggregate consumer sentiment by party. Because of the endogenous nature of political and economic evaluations, it is likely that in- and out-party economic evaluations would look very different from the aggregate, national measure. While we would expect to observe polarization of economic perceptions, we do not believe this would lead to an increased correlation between subjective political and economic evaluations. Rather, we expect this effect to be conditional on objective economic conditions. During extraordinary economic times, partisan economic evaluations resemble each other, with in- and out-party identifiers making similar economic judgments (Parker-Stephen 2013). This should not lead to an increased correlation, however, because partisans will differ in the attribution of responsibility for these economic conditions (Bisgaard 2015). In other words, polarization weakens the likelihood of voters to reward or punish presidents for (perceived) economic conditions.

  4. 4.

    The events include honeymoon periods for presidents Clinton and Obama, as well as Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the 2001 terrorist attacks and the rally that followed, and the invasion of Iraq in 2003. We also found similar results using the Koyck (1954) model but given papers such as Box-Steffensmeier and Smith (1996) and Lebo et al. (2000), treating the dependent variables as fractionally integrated is a safer assumption than treating them as stationary AR processes in the Koyck model. We also ran models using objective economic indicators such as unemployment and inflation (see Appendix Tables 3, 4, 5, 6).

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Amber Boydstun for helpful comments and A.M. for pushing us to find a suitable outlet for this manuscript. The data and replication code can be found at https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/MN4PT4.

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Appendix

Appendix

See Tables 3, 4, 5 and 6.

Table 3 Objective economic indicators and presidential approval for in- and out-partisans, 1981–2015
Table 4 Objective economic indicators and presidential approval for Barack Obama post-recession
Table 5 Objective economic indicators and presidential approval for independents, 1981–2015
Table 6 Objective economic indicators and presidential approval for independents, Obama post-recession

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Donovan, K., Kellstedt, P.M., Key, E.M. et al. Motivated Reasoning, Public Opinion, and Presidential Approval. Polit Behav (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-019-09539-8

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Keywords

  • Public opinion
  • Presidential approval
  • Motivated reasoning
  • Polarization